Both my adopted hometown (Montreal, Canada) and my city of birth (Beirut, Lebanon) are known for their rich café heritage. During my childhood, I would watch my parents and their friends play Tawlé (backgammon) whilst sipping on endless rounds of Ah’we (coffee). It is perhaps not surprising then that I’ve always been an avid coffee lover. I am always on the lookout for new cafés to hang out at. One of my favorite coffee memories stems from the late 1980s (I was pursing my MBA at McGill University at the time). A new coffee shop had recently opened up in Montreal and I was excited to try it out. If memory serves me right, it was called “Café Siphon” in reference to the unique brewing style. The café in question boasted that it utilized the Japanese-style siphoning method, an art unto itself, which yielded a delicious albeit very expensive cup of coffee. As a side note, I should mention that the absolute best coffee that I’ve ever had was in Sydney, Australia in 2001 at a local café in the Kings Cross neighborhood (the local coffee is referred to as a flat white). While Café Siphon brewed wonderfully aromatic coffee, I was hooked for a totally separate reason. The servers (one in particular stood out) would offer outlandish adjectives in describing the various coffees that a customer might order. I was particularly fond of her “geometric” descriptors. Here is an infamous chat that we had had (this is reproduced here nearly verbatim, as I am trying to recall the exact words from 25 years ago). The conversation took place in French so I’ll reproduce it as such with translations in square brackets.
Server: Ah, ce café est rond. Il n’est pas du tout angulaire. [Oh, this coffee is round. It is not at all angular.]
Me: Les cafés ont des goûts géométriques? [Coffees have geometrical tastes?]
Server: Mais bien sûr monsieur. [But of course sir.]
Me: J’aimerais bien essayer un café sous forme de trapeze. Est-ce que vous en vendez? [I would like to try a coffee in the shape of a trapezoid. Do you sell any?]
My humor was lost on her. By the way, who says that a degree in mathematics and computer science (my undergraduate majors) cannot be applied in daily life? How else could I have so readily come up with trapezoid as my desired coffee taste? ;)
On a related note, I once had a distant cousin characterize the personality of another one of our mutual cousins as being delicious and sumptuous to which I retorted: “Did you taste his character?” Again, the conversation had taken place in French. What is it about the French language that renders it prone to an extra dose of…?
These stories lay dormant in my mind (with the occasional recounting to family members) until I came across a 2007 article written by the Princeton economist Richard E. Quandt titled “On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software?” and published in the Journal of Wine Economics. In his paper, Quandt offers a table containing a list of wine descriptors many of which make intuitive sense (e.g., adjectives relating to fruitiness) while others are utter drivel (“angular,” “animal,” “austere,” “backward,” “decadent,” “dumb,” “precocious,” and “sex appeal”). That’s a whole lot of bullsh*t!
In one of my earlier Psychology Today articles titled “Men Use Fancy Words to Impress the Ladies,” I described a study in which researchers had found that subsequent to being primed about a romantic motive, men were more likely to use less common words (as a means of showing off). I suspect that the BS inherent to wine and coffee descriptors is rooted in a similar signaling effort wherein the speaker is trying to demonstrate that he/she is cultured and sophisticated.
While we are on the topic of BS as relating to coffee, some readers might enjoy my earlier Psychology Today article wherein I describe the Middle Eastern practice of reading one’s future from coffee stains left on a cup (tasseography). This ritual along with several other forms of quackery and hope peddling is further discussed in chapter 8 (aptly titled “Marketing Hope by Selling Lies”) of my trade book The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature.
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